Contraband

Nyah jostled against the other women. Bodies in various stage of undress pressed in on all sides. The locker room was silent of talk. Women shed the green overalls of their employ and replaced them with the dull tones of Labour Caste. Their bodies unfolded, easing out of work and closer to home.

Nyah was balancing on one foot, the other brought up as she fiddled with her boot laces. She wriggled in place and fought with the stubborn double knot. Her fingers dug into the coarse thread, seeking better purchase, but her knuckles brushed against something hard.

“Ow!”

A woman, Gen, gave Nyah a questioning look.

“Just a stone in my shoe,” Nyah whispered quickly, before returning to the problem.

How had a stone gotten lodged in there?

Nyah stuck her fingers between the laces. She wriggled the stone and pulled. The course skin of the stone grabbed at the lace, but just a little bit of pressure and it pulled through. Nyah brought the stone to eye level and then hastily closed her fist. It wasn’t a stone.

Nyah dropped into a low crouch and ever so carefully, she opened her hand again.

Oh.

No.

It wasn’t a stone.

Nyah clenched her fist shut. A stream of silent curses rushed through her. How had that gotten into her shoe? How had it gotten past security?

Nyah turned toward the Greenhouse entry. She couldn’t see the door or the guards, her world was a city of shifting legs, but she knew they were there. She pressed her fingers deep into her palm and felt the little bean imprinting on her flesh. She should return it.

She should.

But…

Nyah knew what would happen. The guards would overreact. She would no doubt be taken in for questioning; detainment. What were the chances of her innocence being believed? And the other women? They’d all be detained too. For several hours at least. The guards would rerun their security checks. Personal belongings would be pawed through with aggressive disrespect. Questions would be barked into faces, the guards intent on exposing accomplices.

Nyah looked at the other women. They weren’t friends, not exactly. The Greenhouse was not the kind of place that fostered close connection, but they were her colleagues and she understood what they endured. She understood what the end of shift meant. Home. Family. A reason for the sacrifice. If she were to turn the bean in, if she were to enrage the guards… it would be as if Nyah had taken them all hostage.

She couldn’t, she wouldn’t do that to them.

The bean dug into her palm. Are you sure you want to do this?

Nyah bent her head low. She struggled with the stubborn boot lace and finally got the knot free. She kicked the boot off. It was followed shortly by the second. Nyah took a deep breath and rose, the bean still clenched in her hand. She unzipped the overall and shrugged her arms free. She pressed her hands into the fabric and pushed it down to her hips. Nyah paused, just a fraction of a second, and carefully slid the bean into the band of her underwear. She hurriedly removed the rest of her work wear and scrambled into her Caste regulation clothing. Most of the women were filing out now, the night air swirling through the open door and into the empty spaces left behind. Nyah was acutely aware of the guards’ eyes on her. The lone straggler keeping them from their evening meal.

Everything is fine. Everything is fine.

Nyah had already been through security. The guards had no reason to search her again.

They never need a reason.

Breathe.

Everything is fine.

Nyah plunged her feet into her boots, grabbed her pouch and hurried out of the door. She reached the Transport just as it was about to leave. Nyah rushed through the closing doors and grabbed for the nearest handhold. Sweat beaded her forehead as the Transport began the slow glide home.

**********

“Mama, what is that?”

It was Sunday. Nyah’s one day off and five days since she had become an unintentional smuggler. No one had come looking for her. No midnight raids. She and her family were safe. As safe as any of their neighbours.

The bean lay on the table, gently nestled in a wad of cotton wool. Nyah had a glass of water in one hand and was using it as a rather crude magnifying glass. The bean looked much like the beans she handled at the Greenhouse. Old, fragile and unlikely to sprout. This one would have been sorted for consumption. In any given week, only a small handful would be selected for growing and of those, very few survived to fruit.

Nyah settled back and wrapped an arm around her daughters small shoulders. The little body leaned into the space and pressed against her mother’s side. Nyah held the snuggle for a moment. Her husband, Marek, sat at the opposite end of the four seater. She caught his eye. He shrugged. It was up to her to decide what to tell their four year old.

“It’s a bean,” Nyah finally answered.

“What kind of bean?”

“The kind that might grow into a tree if we plant it.”

“Can we plant it? Please Mama, please. I’ll help!”

Nyah looked at the bean again, such an innocent thing. Such a complicated thing.

“Will it grow?”

Nyah looked up at her husband. “Unlikely,” she responded.

“But can we try, Mama, please? I want to try!”

Marek shrugged again. “Plant it. No real harm in burying it, is there?”

Marek was right. They would just be burying it. The bean wouldn’t sprout. It was too old, too wizened. What harm was there in doing this little activity with her daughter. It couldn’t grow. The Greenhouse Science Caste, with all their learning and equipment, were barely able to grow the trees. A bean sorter and her four year old couldn’t do better than Science Caste.

“Yes, let’s plant it,” Nyah said.

****************

“Mama mama look! It grew it grew!”

Nyah smiled, a strained and crooked thing. The stalk was young and yet seemed brown with age. It was bent in on itself as if its own leaves were too much of a weight to bare. The leaves brushed against the soil, wrinkled and small.

“Yes Tae, I see it.”

“Can I water it Mama?”

Nyah took her daughter’s hand. “Come, I’ll help you with the tap.”

Later that night, Marek found Nyah sitting in front of the plant, her knees hugged tightly to her chest. He sat beside her, shoulders touching and looked at the scraggly thing.

“It wasn’t supposed to sprout,” Nyah whispered.

Marek took her hand. He laced his fingers into hers. “What do you want to do?”

Nyah pressed her fingers into Marek’s. “We should… end it.”

“Are you going to?”

Nyah turned to her husband, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. “Am I selfish if I say no? If it grows… if it survives… I’m putting us all at risk… but… do you know that that’s the first bean that’s sprouted in the last three years? We’ve just done what three years of Science Caste couldn’t. All because I let a four year old stick a bean into a pile of dirt. All because I’ve let a four year old look after it.

How can I kill that?”

Marek wrapped his arms around Nyah and pulled him into his chest. “It’s not selfish to let something grow. And if it does grow and if it does fruit, we will figure it out then. Right now, it’s just a sprout and most sprouts don’t make it, right?”

Nyah nodded. “ Most of them don’t make it.”

But it wasn’t supposed to sprout.

**************

“It’s growing well.”

Nyah felt the hands snake around her waist and leaned into Marek’s bulk. The tree, and it was most certainly a tree now, looked happy. The weak stalk had grown into a thick rope, crookedly bent where growth had been a struggle, but strong now and healthy. The leaves were a thick, bright green. A few rust spots dotted their surface, a small reminder of the tree’s frail beginnings. Tael loved her tree. She sang to it and she watered it and she gave it a new name every other day. Tael could not be happier. Nyah could not be more filled with dread.

She hugged Marek’s arms tightly.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

“Hey… hey, no. Don’t be sorry. This is amazing. You are amazing.”

“If they find out…”

Marek rested his chin on Nyah’s shoulder. His breath easy and warm against her skin.

“I’ve been talking to some friends with connections to the Resistance.”

Marek uncoiled an arm from around Nyah’s waist and reached out to the tree. Nyah stood silently in his embrace and watched as his finger delicately traced the edges of a leaf.

“We always talk about having a better future for Tael, maybe, with this, we can do something.”

Nyah shifted her weight. “It’s just one tree.”

“It’s a start.”

************

Three men and one woman stood on one side of the tiny living area. Nyah and her husband stood on the other. To Nyah, they looked worn, dirty. She wondered what she looked like to them? An obedient Labour Caste woman, in her Labour Caste clothes and her Labour Caste house. Their expressions seemed bored and unimpressed. How many families asked the Resistance for help and got none? Their resources were limited, their space to house fugitives dwindling. The resistance simply did not help you if you could not help them. Nyah took a deep breath.

The tree was in fruit, the pods hanging heavy and proud. Sooner or later, Security would run a Street check and sooner or later, she would be found out. Nyah needed the Resistance’s help.

“Right,” the woman spoke, voice laced with fatigue. “What do you have that you think we need?”

Nyah grasped the hand Marek offered. “Before I tell you, I have some conditions.”

“Lady, you are in no position to be listing conditions.”

“Just listen. Please.”

The woman folded her arms over her chest. Her fingers tapped a rhythm against her arm. “I don’t have all night. Just get on with it.”

Nyah nodded. ”It belongs to my daughter. I need your assurance that it still stays within her care. You can have access, but it is hers.”

“And what is it?”

“Do I have your word?”

The woman clenched her teeth, clearly holding back a string of impolite words. “If it will hurry this up, yes, you have my assurance. Now, what. Is. It?”

Nyah swallowed. She stepped aside to reveal her bargaining chip.

“It’s a Cacao tree.”

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Buhle Process Videos

Hey guys!

Here are the process videos for my Buhle Painting. Still a bit skwonky and all over the place, but I am starting to feel more at home in Photoshop. Huzzah!

The first Video is the initial sketch. I took a pretty long time figuring out how to place her arms. This video is mostly me drawing arms and then erasing arms and then drawing arms and then erasing arms… you get the idea. 😛

The second starts with a few quick colour comps before diving into the final piece.

Disclaimer: Yes, I know I shouldn’t do backgrounds last. 😛

Buhle

Buhle dipped her oar into the Lagoon. Ripples spread out across the surface, distorting the once prosperous city that lay beneath the water. It had been called Cape Town, but that was before the ocean invaded the land, before the world went mad and before humankind changed. Now it was simply the Lagoon: a place where life flourished above the water and memories twisted in the currents far below. It was those memories Buhle sought. It was those memories that all Salvagers sought. At least, it was that curiosity and desire for something more that first drove them to join the salvaging crews. But time and failure weathered the spirit. Many gave up. They returned to their homes, ready to forget, to become respectable members of society once more. Others simply salvaged for the raw materials their people could use and forgot the dream. They stopped believing that technology could be recovered. It had drowned along with their ancestors.

Water swirled and pressed against the wood of Buhle’s oar. She pulled back, feeling the pressure of the oar’s passage. She felt it through her skin, muscle, bone. She felt it pressing against her spirit, that pushing, suffocating sense that the water had nothing to give. The water could not answer her dreams. It was a terrifying feeling, but the more time she spent below the surface, the more time she spent staring at the strange lines of circuitry, unable to decipher their secrets, unable to bring them back to life, the more it felt like truth. The Lagoon could not answer her dreams.

But it had not crushed them.

Buhle’s gaze drifted toward the distant foothills and the flat-top mountain that rose from them. Even from this distance, she could see the pristine white walls stretching across the summit. The people that lived atop the mountain -the Table- had secrets. At night the mountain glowed with yellow dots, like stars dropped from the sky. The lights did not flicker or dance. They remained chained in place, perfectly still and obedient. The lights on the Table did not burn like fire.
The Table did not share its secrets. Because secrets were power.

To leave the Lagoon, to step onto dry land and enter those foothills meant slavery. It meant torture. Death. Children were taught from a young age never to leave the water, but The Table had secrets, and as far as Buhle could see, the Lagoon had only ghosts.

A soft croak pulled Buhle from her thoughts. She gently rested her cheek against the toad perched on her shoulder and smiled faintly.

“Ah Buddy. You’re right of course, one battle at a time.”

They sat like that for a moment, the toad croaking a soft, almost purring melody and Buhle breathing in the contact like it was a drug. Then her village came into view, and the spell broke.

Thick concrete squares pushed up and out of The Lagoon. They were the last surviving remnants of Cape Town: the top-most stories of high-rise buildings standing defiant against the water. Coloured cloth fluttered on balconies, and everywhere was the activity of people. Men and women gutting fish, children running about and playing in the water. Still others pushing off in canoes to go hunt or fish. Floating walkways had been constructed between the buildings, and the rooftops served as common areas for people to gather. The high-rises made for easy homes -many villages such as this one existed across the Lagoon. Buhle took in a deep breath as she steered toward the docks. This visit was a farewell. She couldn’t tell her family that, wouldn’t tell them her plans, but she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving without one last chance to be with them. One more day of laughter with her brothers, one last chance to be wrapped tight within Goggo’s warm embrace…

But they would have to forgive Buhle first.

“Molo Buhle!”

Buhle looked up and smiled, the tension easing slightly as she marveled at the ridiculous enthusiasm Wezi could muster for waving. Nathi did not show the same outward excitement, but he was smiling broadly.

“Molweni, my brothers!”

Wezi leaned over to grab the canoe, mooring rope already in hand. He spoke as he worked, every action a vibrant release of energy, “Goggo will be so happy to see you! She has been asking, -and when will that little one that makes all the trouble be coming again?- Goggo makes like life is boring with just me and Nathi at home.”

Wezi’s words should have felt soft, a laughter in the breeze, but they burrowed into Buhle’s chest and held fast. She stood up, her muscles feeling as if they had been replaced with solid stone, and heaved herself onto the jetty. Wezi bounded forward, arms wide to hug his little sister, but then he paused. He stared at the toad on Buhle’s shoulder.

“You have been making trouble.”

Buhle curled into herself. Her eyes stung with the promise of tears.

“Yeah… but… I can still get a hug, can’t I?”

Buhle choked on the silence that followed. Out of all of them, she had told herself, at least Wezi would understand. Now she stood before him, broken and exposed, as he contemplated her with a deep intensity he rarely allowed people to see. Buhle turned back toward her canoe.

“If you… If you think I should go…”

“Oh no… no, Boo, of course you can still get a hug. Hey, it’s okay. You’re still my little sister.”

Wezi wrapped his arms around Buhle and pulled her in tight, switching effortlessly from manic playmate to protective big brother. Buhle nestled into his warmth and allowed a few tears to escape. The hug was over too soon, but when Buhle pulled back, she saw Nathi was already on his way to the apartment. A whimper escaped her.

Wezi wrapped an arm around Buhle’s shoulder.

“It will be better if Goggo has a few moments to prepare. This won’t be easy for her.”

“I know.”

And Buhle did know, but it still stung. Nathi didn’t wait to say hello. He didn’t even give her a chance, he just… left.

“C’mon, let me take your bag.”

Buhle handed her belongings to Wezi and started walking. Her muscles were twitching. This was hard. This was so much harder than she had ever imagined it to be.

“Hey,” Wezi said gently. “It’s going to be alright, you’ll see. Goggo will find a way to blame me and Nathi. You know how it is.”

Wezi’s voice suddenly erupted into a terrible imitation of Goggo. “You call yourself big brothers? Hai! You let my granddaughter run off with a Salvaging Crew! My granddaughter! Of course something like this would happen! You are a disgrace as brothers! Disgrace!”

Buhle couldn’t help but let a smile cross her lips, “You let me run away, huh?”

“Of course. You couldn’t possibly do anything without first obtaining our brotherly approval.”

“And do you approve?”

There were several beats of silence. Then Wezi said, “I understand.”

Buhle grabbed onto those words, simple yet layered with so much meaning, and held tight. No matter what happened, Wezi would always be waiting on the other side of it. Wezi would be her beacon in the darkness.

“Buhle…”

Buhle blinked and found herself barely an arm’s length from Goggo. She wanted to throw her arms around the old woman. She wanted to confess and cry and have all her sins washed away in soothing lullabies, but that look on Goggo’s face…

“Goggo?”

Goggo stretched her hand out toward Buhle, but jerked it back with a cry. She brought both hands up to her chest, fisting them in her clothing. Tears gathered in her eyes, and her voice broke on a single word,

“Why?”

Buhle looked at her grandmother. There was no pride shining in her eyes, no warmth, no love. Only the hurt and the shock and confusion that Buhle had caused. Buhle didn’t know how to process it. Goggo, her Goggo, in so much pain because of her.

“I… it.. it was an accident. I didn’t mean for…”

Buhle hadn’t meant to lie, but the look in Goggo’s eyes broke her, and the words tumbled out. There was always talk of spontaneous bondings. No one could actually confirm the phenomenon existed, but the first familiar pairs could not have been deliberate, and so the theory remained valid. Her lie was plausible.

“How?”

Buhle took a deep breath. It had taken months of careful study and planning. She had spent hours talking to the Bonded, finding out the strengths and weaknesses of their familiars. She had been exhaustive in her quest to know how the bond was formed and all the nuances that came with being Bonded. And then she had made her decision and gone out to find her toad. What she hadn’t spent enough time considering was the impact it would have on Goggo. Truth be told, no amount of time spent considering her family would have changed her mind. Even now, standing in the midst of the pain, she knew she would not hesitate to make the same decision. And so Buhle told them a story as close to the truth as she could allow.

“I was salvaging near the marshes. My mind was elsewhere. I wasn’t concentrating on what my hands were doing… I… I touched a toad and it just… it felt warm. I fell into the warmth… I didn’t think to pull back. I hadn’t realised… and then… ”

“No!”

Goggo was shaking.

“No! I can’t do this. I can’t… Buhle? Buhle! No!”

Goggo turned away from Buhle and stormed into the apartment block. Nathi ran after her. Buhle stumbled back. She stared at the door. Just a few weeks back, that door had offered her sanctuary and a place to belong. Now they were barriers keeping her out. Now she was the one her family needed sanctuary from.

“I’m going to go sit on the roof,” she told Wezi. “Go to Goggo. She needs you.”

“Are you sure, Buhle? I can stay with you.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Wezi nodded once. “I’ll come find you once she’s calmed down.” And then he disappeared behind that now impenetrable barrier.

#

It was Nathi who found Buhle perched on the edge of the roof. The sun was setting across the Lagoon, and the chorus of night bugs just beginning. He took a seat beside Buhle. The two of them sat there, legs dangling off the side, watching the world turn orange. When he finally spoke, his words misted over with emotion.

“Mom used to have a toad. It was a leopard like yours. She called him Spudge.”

“Mom… mom’s familiar was a leopard toad?”

Nathi nodded.

“Ah Boo, the picture you painted today. You look so much like her and then… and then you have this toad on your shoulder…”

“No wonder Goggo freaked out as much as she did…”

“Yeah.”

Buhle wiped away a tear. She had been young when their parents had died-barely walking. Goggo had spun fairy tales of their lives, but she had avoided talking about their deaths. Familiars were to blame, that was all Buhle was told.

“How did they die?”

Nathi shuddered. “It was a lake gull. It came out of nowhere and snatched Spudge. Dad had a gull as his familiar, and he sent it after the one that had got Spudge, but something went wrong. They flew into this huge flock, and soon all the gulls where snatching for Spudge. Dad’s gull didn’t stand a chance, but he tried to fight them all. Mom was screaming on the floor and then dad was crashing down beside her and… well… Uncle Themb, he -he always said that was no normal gull, that someone sent a familiar to snatch Spudge… but…”

“Why would someone want mom dead?”

“Yeah.”

Their deaths had been brutal. No wonder Goggo didn’t want to talk about it. Buhle had come home with a toad and dredged up all of those memories. A toad, just like her mother’s. Goggo had looked at Buhle and seen the ghost of her deceased daughter. Maybe if they had told Buhle… maybe if they had been more open…

No. Buhle would still have chosen to take a familiar. Her parents’ story was not the first she had heard. It was not new information. It happened, it was a risk, but it was rare. And that was the thing about being bonded. It was a two way street. The creature to whom you bonded gave you powers, but in return you gave it your life. You were forever tied and, anything that happened to your familiar happened to you too.

“I’m sorry,” Buhle whispered.

Nathi shook his head. “I always thought that one day you would come home like this. Deep down, I think Goggo has always known too. You’re restless. Always searching for something more. It was always going to happen.”

“Will she forgive me?”

“I don’t know. But she will feed you. Are you ready to go down?”

Buhle nodded. She would eat, and she would sleep, and maybe she would catch a glimpse of light in Goggo’s eyes.

#

The oar felt heavy in the water now. Buhle let it drag as tears fell freely down her cheeks. The village was behind her, nothing more than a few smudged blocks on the horizon. Before her, a cluster of canoes waited. Buhle felt broken. Broken and stupid and entirely unprepared. One last day to spend with her family, she had thought, one last day to recharge, and then she would be ready. But the day had left her broken. Dinner had been suffocating. Every time Buhle had tried to explain herself or talk about familiars, Goggo would look toward her. Goggo’s eyes would bore into her and tear little pieces of her heart until it felt like only ribbons remained. You hurt me, those eyes said. You knew that this would hurt me, and yet you did it.

Buhle had not been able to sleep. In the morning, she had chosen to pack her canoe and be on her way, forgoing her original plan to stay for lunch. Wezi and Nathi had hugged her fiercely, making sure she promised to stay longer next time. Goggo had watched it all and finally, when it was all done, she had approached her granddaughter. Buhle had stepped forward, she had tried to embrace Goggo, but Goggo had stepped back, her head shaking.

“I will always love you Buhle, but I need time. Your choice brings out my darkest memories, and you lied when I asked you why. I’m sorry, Buhle. I need time.”

The words sunk into Buhle. She was leaving the water, but her ghosts would be coming too.